Hall of Fame swim coach Jim Farrar taught survival swimming to John F. Kennedy before the future president shipped out to war. Those skills came in handy in August 1943.
It hardly seems possible, but this month marks 70 years since PT-109, the patrol torpedo boat commanded by Lt. John F. Kennedy, was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Kennedy's heroic response to the incident has been well-documented. He undoubtedly showed great courage in towing one of his crewmen, badly burned Patrick McMahon, to safety by clenching a strap in his teeth while he swam.
Having spent much of his youth at Cape Cod, JFK was an excellent sailor and swimmer; in fact, he was a member of the varsity swim team at Harvard.
Swimming competitively can be helpful in an accident at sea, but swimming for survival is a more vital skill. A young naval officer from Connecticut trained Kennedy in survival swimming. His name was Jim Farrar.
Jim Farrar was a native of Naugatuck. Born in 1914, Jim was an accomplished swimmer himself as a young man. He was a YMCA state champion. Jim later became one of the most successful high school swim coaches in America. His teams won eight state championships, two New England championships, had seven undefeated seasons, and a one-time national record of 70 straight dual-meet wins. In fact, Jim is the only exclusively high school-level coach in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida. Jim later became a longtime swim official for the Western Connecticut Swim Officials Association (WCSOA). It was with the WCSOA that I knew Jim as a fellow official for nearly 20 years.
Back in 1942, Jim had enlisted with the Navy during the war. Clearly, his talent lay in teaching swimming; consequently, the Navy had him take legendary Naval Academy Coach Tom Hamilton's course on swimming survival. It became Jim's job to train naval aviators and ship's officers at Opa Locka, FL, in the finer points of survival swimming before these men shipped off to war. Jim told me once that one of those officers was a skinny young lieutenant from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy.
Those survival skills undoubtedly came in handy on the moonless evening at 2:30 a.m. near the Solomon Islands when the Japanese destroyer Amigiri cut Kennedy's PT boat in half. Responding to the challenge posed by the incident, Lt. Kennedy directed the 10 other survivors on how to save themselves. He proceeded to swim with them for 4 miles to Plum Pudding Island, where they rested and found sustenance. Kennedy had to swim again to two other islands. Eventually, he contacted two native islanders who transported an emergency message carved on a coconut. That message led to their rescue. JFK kept that coconut on his desk in the Oval Office throughout his presidency.
The story of PT-109 and Kennedy's truly heroic and courageous actions in saving his crew has been largely forgotten over the years, as the president's controversial assassination in 1963 and his alleged affairs with other women have dominated the publicity on his life in recent years. It should not be forgotten, however, that Lt. Kennedy showed great courage and judgment in guiding his crew to safety under very dangerous circumstances. Let's not forget that JFK also got an assist from a future Hall of Fame swim coach from Connecticut named Jim Farrar.